Latvia's rookie goalie stars in Moscow
Latvian goalie Elvis Merzlinkis has become one of the stars of the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship with a series of impressive displays as the Baltic state escaped from the threat of relegation.
Keeping the experienced Edgars Masalskis out of the team for four of Latvia's six games so far, the 22-year-old HC Lugano netminder has returned impressive numbers: 127 saves at 92.7% and a GAA of 2.43 in a team that is going through a transitional period. Only four goalies - the Czechs' Dominik Furch, Cam Talbot of Canada, Denmark's Sebastian Dahm and Russia's Sergei Bobrovski - have a better save percentage at this stage after playing three or more games.
Along the way there have been some sensational performances, capped by a superb diving stop against Russia that had commentators 'All Shook Up' as his gravity-defying leap denied Sergei Mozyakin the opening goal in that game.
But for Merzlikins himself, that game against the Russians was most notable for the chance to line up against Bobrovski, his opposite number on the international stage and a potential team-mate at the Columbus Blue Jackets, the NHL team that owns Merzlinkins' rights.
"I really like Bobrovski," he said. "If I go over to camp with Columbus this summer I hope I'll get the chance to train with him. Playing against him was really cool because he's my idol. I could see areas where I need to improve my game, where I need to be faster.
"He's a really solid goalie and I also like [Henrik] Lundqvist, Carey Price, Holtby played really well this season. I'm still learning so I'm happy that I can watch so many good goalies in the game at the moment."
In a competition where Latvia has found it tough on occasion, Merzlikins has been busy in his rookie World Championship campaign, facing 137 shots in total. The onslaught started against Sweden in the opening game of the competition, where the youngster made 42 saves to force the Tre Kronor into overtime before they edged a 2-1 verdict. Despite the defeat, it was a stellar debut - and the baptism of fire was just what Merzlikins was hoping for.
"Maybe the Swedes were the toughest opponent in that third game, but it kinda helped me," he said. "I was a bit nervous, but I'm more comfortable when I'm facing shots. I think most goalies will tell you the same thing, it's easier to stay in the game when you get 40 or 50 shots on your net.
"The game against Kazakhstan was probably the toughest. It was a really tight game, both teams clogged up the ice and there weren't a lot of chances at either end."
That Kazakhstan game ended in a 2-1 victory for Latvia, a result that confirmed the team's top-flight survival and maintained an outside chance of sneaking into the quarter final. But even if Merzlikins doesn't get the chance to test himself in a knock-out game this year, his performances against Sweden, Russia, Denmark and Kazakhstan cemented a burgeoning reputation.
And after helping HC Lugano to a silver medal in the Swiss NLA this season he admits that he would jump at the chance to impress teams scouts with his form in Moscow.
"There are offers with my agent at the moment," he said. "It would just be a dream to play in the NHL and I'll do everything I can to make that happen."
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